Experts recommend proactive approach to holiday preparations
Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Inman from the CASCOM G-3 (Training) office, points at a location on a massive Fort Lee floor map that was the centerpiece for a holiday block leave rehearsal of concept drill Nov. 18 in MacLaughlin Fitness Center. Well-planned and synchronized operations are vital to the annual operation that involves pre-departure safety and proper conduct training for several thousand troops, clearing and securing barracks rooms, staging for movement to transportation hubs, receiving service members upon their return to Fort Lee, and much more. HBL operations will begin in mid-December. (Photo Credit: Jefferson Wolfe) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – The upcoming holiday season is shaping up to be one that does not favor procrastinators.

Those who lean toward putting things off until the last minute are likely to experience higher than usual levels of frustration and disappointment due to job vacancy and supply chain shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

Douglas Gretka, chief of the Training Operations Branch, is among the community supporters suggesting that advanced planning is key to avoiding the holiday blahs. His office is part of the Combined Arms Support Command Plans and Operations Directorate (G-3) that oversees Holiday Block Leave activities.

“The most important thing this year is understanding the challenges with travel,” Gretka said. “With airlines in particular, we’re really concerned about last-minute changes or last-minute flight cancellations that are above and beyond the (normal interruptions of the flight industry).”

For example, over the Halloween weekend, one airline cancelled more than 1,200 flights, blaming staff shortages that were exacerbated by inclement weather, according to Kiplinger.com, a personal finance website.

The huge glut of people planning to hit the airways and roadways also could make the December holidays worse than a Halloween horror show. The American Automobile Association is forecasting an increase of 6 million travelers compared to last year when there was greater emphasis on isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With staff shortages in all sectors of the transportation industry expected to persist, Gretka said it makes sense to make travel arrangements sooner rather than later.

“Our friendly advice is that people need to go ahead and coordinate (holiday travel) plans early to make sure the best options and deals with ticketing are available – be it with the airlines, Amtrak (rail) or bus – so that you’re not at the mercy of limited capability,” he said.

Put more succinctly, that means purchasing tickets and making reservations now.

Joining the discussion, Tina Ostmann, program manager for the Family and MWR Leisure Travel Office here, said those traveling by air are more likely to encounter delays in comparison to other modes of transportation. She suggested buses or trains could be a more viable option than air travel when trips are short.

“If you’re going to California by train, it’s going to take you days, so it’s not as feasible,” she said, “but if you’re going to someplace like Raleigh, I would at least consider going by train. Bus travel would take a bit longer, but it’s the most affordable.”

Amtrak train and Greyhound bus stations are located in Petersburg and Richmond. Tickets may be purchased online through the websites offered by those companies or other, well-advertised venues in the travel industry.

Travelers also should be prepared to comply with COVID-19 prevention protocols that continue to be enforced throughout the commercial sector. The Transportation Security Administration – the federal agency responsible for passenger travel – requires those traveling on commercial aircraft and on commuter buses and trains to wear facemasks regardless of vaccination status.

Furthermore, CASCOM General Order No. 1 dated Aug. 13, 2021, “highly encourages” military personnel and DOD-affiliated civilians to wear masks when they enter any public facility off post. Community leaders are emphasizing that it should not be a decision based on “following the crowd,” but one that takes Army readiness and protecting fellow military personnel, the civilian workforce and family members into consideration.

As noted in the garrison commander’s Thanksgiving holiday safety message, “(We must) remain vigilant and resolute to slow the spread and defeat COVID-19. There’s evidence that confirms fully vaccinated people can still be vulnerable to ‘breakthrough infections’ and are capable of transmitting the virus to others. We must adhere to current CDC, state and GO No. 1 guidelines for safe interaction and activity in and out of our homes.”

Offering yet another piece of advice, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service recently published an advisory that encouraged its authorized patrons to shop early this holiday season. For weeks, media reports have documented COVID-19-exacerbated bottlenecks in the supply chain resulting in sparse department store shelves and longer-than-normal delivery times for online orders.

“(Individuals) should shop now to ensure they get all the items on their lists in time for the holidays,” cautioned Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Osby, the Exchange’s senior enlisted advisor.

The local Exchange team led by Eric Desveaux, AAFES general manager at Fort Lee, has been promoting “Black Friday deals” that have been spread out over the past few weeks, and the store is hosting a Holiday Bazaar – Dec. 2-6, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. – that will feature merchandise from variety of local vendors. Due to a shortage in staff, there are no plans for extended Black Friday hours over Thanksgiving weekend, according to Desveaux.

Those planning to send holiday cards and gifts by mail will benefit from getting it done in early December as well. Some of the shipping deadlines for overseas locations are as early as Nov. 29. For the complete list of mail-by dates, visit www.usps.com/holiday/holiday-shipping-dates.